Wages of Fear: mesmerising film about character, motivation and meaning of existence in an uncaring universe

Henri-Georges Clouzot, “Wages of Fear” (1953)

On paper, this movie’s plot looks so simple, even kindergartners would yawn at it: an American oil company offers to pay “big” money to four truck drivers to transport two loads of explosive chemicals from a remote town somewhere in Central America to an oilfield. The route they must take winds through rough country over often unpaved roads, there may be obstacles in the way and the loads themselves are so volatile that the slightest vibration in the engine or the smallest bump in the road could set them off. How then could Clouzot make a movie lasting nearly 2 1/2 hours out of this scenario? How can anyone make a long truck journey interesting and tense for an audience to watch for over an hour? The answer is that Clouzot made this particular trip more than just an adventure thriller flick: “Wages of Fear” is as much a study of character and motivation, a test of courage, loyalty and morality under extreme circumstances, and an indictment of a society in which people hold life and nature in low regard and readily exploit other people who allow themselves to be debased to the extent that their own lives become expendable.

The movie divides into two unequal halves: the second half contains the actual trip itself and has all the action and suspense but the first half, about an hour, gives viewers the backgrounds of the four men and their motives for wanting to carry out such a suicidal job for measly pay in conditions that in part were deliberately created or neglected by their employer. The setting is in a poor town, Las Piedras: hot, dusty, rainy, isolated with no work for the various European expatriate refugees who have come here for various reasons. They sleep, drink, laze about and make nuisances of themselves with the locals. Four such men are Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and Luigi (Folco Lulli) who waste their days away in their own fashion: Mario is having an affair with a local girl, Linda (Vera Clouzot), and both plan to get away from Las Piedras if Linda can save up enough money. Jo, an ex-gangster, has a mean streak and is prepared to kill for selfish and petty reasons. Luigi is a warm-hearted if perhaps simple-minded baker. Bimba is a quiet type who was once imprisoned by Nazis and forced by them to work in a salt mine.

They are among several men answering the call of the local branch of the Southern Oil Company (SOC) for drivers to carry explosives to an oilfield some hundreds of kilometres away. A fire has broken out and nitroglycerine is urgently needed to put out the flames; the company is forced to load cans of the stuff onto two old trucks and recruit drivers at short notice with little safety preparation. Understandable of course but we’re not supposed to ask why safety precautions at the oilfield weren’t carried out in the first place. (And using explosives to extinguish fires? … uh, hmmm …) Assume that, like the real-life BP, the oil company here has little regard for safety in the workplace and environmental concerns, and cuts corners if it can with impunity. Anyway, applicants have to travel to the company compound – the company managers and their staff live in their own town in comfort – to undergo driving and medical tests: Luigi has a condition, caused by previous employment with SOC, that shortens his life-span and for that reason is hired as one of the four lucky driver duckies. Mario and Bimba, being young and fit, are also picked as is Smerloff (?) with Jo an alternative driver should any of the four fail to turn up for the job. Jo waylays Smerloff and gets the job.

As we expect, the trip itself isn’t a smooth ride: the truckers have to negotiate at least two obstacles which involve backing and turning the vehicles around on a damaged bridge with rotting wood planks overlooking an abyss and removing a boulder blocking the road. Bimba and Luigi, driving on ahead after Jo weakens early during the trip, meet with an accident that leaves a crater filling up with oil from a damaged pipeline which becomes a third obstacle for Mario and Jo. The suspense is extended across the entire time the trip takes place: the pace is leisurely but increases steadily and so does the tension; the cinematography is lean with close-ups taken at critical moments – truck-tyres scrabbling on slippery boards, a wick being ignited, Jo looking exhausted and perhaps inwardly beating himself up for his moral and physical weakness – and featuring an incredible montage sequence at film’s end that alternates between dancing couples and a truck swerving from side to side on a dangerous mountain road to the tune of Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube”. There is also a mesmerising sequence of images of huge fires billowing and sweeping across the screen like hell brought to reality at the oilfield where Mario delivers the explosives. Indeed a number of scenes near the film’s end, beginning with Jo’s death, could be construed as climaxes in the film’s narrative. The acting is sparing and efficient, enough for the movie’s plot and purpose, though Vanel as Jo puts in a great performance playing a man forced to admit to himself if not to others that he is a coward, that his physical and mental strength are fading and failing him, and that the other drivers despise him for his greed and lack of support. But as the quartet overcomes each obstacle, the strain on their endurance becomes obvious: Luigi coughs more, Bimba reminds himself of his experiences in the salt mines, Jo becomes ill or tries to run away and Mario ends up losing his temper and behaves callously in a way that will cost Jo his life.

Superficially the film is a test of four men’s courage and ability to withstand pressures placed partly by themselves and by others: at stake is their self-esteem and sense of masculinity as well as their lives. Mario, initially presented as a self-centred layabout who treats Linda badly, ends up loyal to the undeserving Jo and mourns his death. Jo discovers that with each new ordeal he encounters, his fear increases, demonstrating that whether you face one or 100 frightening situations, you never get used to fear; on the contrary, you become more fearful and less brave. His fatal accident merely manifests the inner broken man he has become. On another level, the film doesn’t celebrate Mario and his fellow truckers as heroes: they were greedy and foolish enough to accept a job without proper safety measures from a firm they know to be unscrupulous and slapdash in its treatment of its employees. Even so, they are heroic in the way they cope with whatever is thrown at them. Jo with all his fear doesn’t come off too badly, facing agonising death and nothingness with relative calm, though this is dependent on Mario offering comfort.

There’s a strong existential aspect to “Wages of Fear”, a philosophical point of view that suggests the universe is indifferent to the fate of humans and capricious to boot; under such conditions, individuals must make meaning out of their lives, however cheap and ignoble the means are. The tragic coda in which circumstances and human arrogance collide illustrates this notion though some viewers may find this part of the film as a heavy-handed and unnecessary addition to the narrative.

The political aspect of “Wages of Fear” is all but ignored: viewers may well wonder what kind of government ruling the country allows towns like Las Piedras to exist and permits foreign, especially US, corporations to trash the environment with impunity and to use the local people as slave labour to extract oil and other resources, the income from which won’t benefit the true owners at all. Also we never find out why people like Mario, Bimba, Jo and Luigi came to Las Piedras in the first place, though viewers who know something of the post-1945 history of the world and of Europe and Latin America in particular may be well aware of the political turmoil and that erupted after World War II and the large-scale movements of refugees displaced by war and poverty that occurred as a result.

Highly recommended watching, preferably in a fixed spot such as inside a building, and not in a truck or semi-trailer carrying dangerous chemical loads or equipment.

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